Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

Sale of Aqua Utilities would serve customers

The suggested sale of a private utility serving three Pasco neighborhoods brings the potential for consistent, local control to customers now forced to complain to out-of-town interests about high-end prices, but low-end service.

FGUA, the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, is governed by a six-member board and six alternates including two Pasco County government officials, Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker and Utilities Director Bruce Kennedy. If the agency acquires Aqua Utilities, it means the company's 3,000 customers in Jasmine Lakes, Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores will be able to take their complaints and concerns to the county government center rather than waiting on the Florida Public Service Commission in Tallahassee. The nearly $2.6 million rate increase the PSC approved for Aqua earlier this year attests to the lack of responsiveness in Tallahassee.

But, last week, even with the rate hike, Pennsylvania-based Aqua offered to sell its Florida utilities to FGUA for $95 million and asked for an expedited answer. Though significant due diligence work remains, particularly establishing a transaction price, the willingness of Aqua to shed its Florida assets could calm some of the complaints about its operations.

Currently, Aqua serves almost 24,000 customers in 17 Florida counties with 58 water and 27 wastewater systems. During the nearly the nearly two-year-long PSC rate case, customers complained about the utility's prices and inferior service that even the regulators agreed was "marginal'' and in need of improvement.

In Pasco, the utility's rates are more than double what the county charges. Residents testified last year that those high water and sewer costs were an unfair burden on the moderate-income neighborhoods populated by working-class families and retirees living amid hundreds of vacant houses. Others said Aqua's high prices had scared away potential buyers of mobile homes in Zephyr Shores.

An FGUA acquisition is no guarantee of rate relief. The price of water service jumped after the authority acquired the former Aloha Utilities near Trinity and Mad Hatter Utilities in central Pasco. Still, a government-controlled authority likely means residents won't be asked to absorb double-digit executive salary increases and a nearly 10 percent profit margin that the private utility included in its last rate increase request.

An FGUA acquisition of Aqua Utilities should enhance local customers' chances of receiving quality service at a fair price.

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